5 Bender - LOOKING ll'l llllll CITY'l'homas Bender NEW YORK AS A CENTER OF “DIFFERENCE” How America’s Metropolis Counters American Myth hen

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Unformatted text preview: LOOKING ll'l' llllll CITY 'l'homas Bender NEW YORK AS A CENTER OF “DIFFERENCE” How America’s Metropolis Counters American Myth hen people speak of New York as being different, something other than America, they seem to have in mind a special quality of the city’s culture and politics, perhaps associ- ated with its ethnic makeup. Such perceptions, however imprecise, have a ring of truth. Culture and politics in New York are based on premises not quite shared by the dominant American culture. The most influential myths of America, those that have been incorporated into the culture, are easily identified in their origins with specific regions: Puritan New England and Jeffersonian Virginia. Neither place is really as representative of America as are the more difficult-to-characterize middle colonies. Yet in spite of the na'rrowness and purity of the Puritan dream of “a city upon a hill” and of agrarian Jeffersonianism, these myths have come to be associated with America, evoking the virtues of the small town and the agricultural frontier. It is puzzling but true that the outlook associated with New York’s cosmopolitan experience has been unable to establish itself as an American standard. The other two myths or, to use a more contemporary terminology, these other two representations of the ,American ideal, have managed to deflect, if not com- pletely obliterate, the alternative standard that since the eighteenth century has been an 0 1987 Thomas Bender. A slightly different version of this essay will appear in America in Theory, edited by Denis Donoghue, Luke Menand, and Leslie Berlowitz, to be published by Oxford University Press. abiding theme of cultural and political dis- course in New York City. Scholars a generation ago devoted them- selves, perhaps too much, to the study of the communitarian myth of the American town and the agrarian myth of the American landscape. It is worth returning to the theme and point of that scholarship. Our acceptance of these myths— whether passively or, as in the case of recent national political leaders, aggressively and exploitatively—has been consequential, limit- ing our ability to grasp the value or distinctive- ness of the culture and politics of New York City. When we examine these myths we can better see what makes New York City uncomfortable with America and America uncomfortable with, even fearful ‘- of, New . York City. Although the New York experience and the outlook associated with that experience posit a political and cultural life based upon differ- ence, the myth of rural and small town America excludes difference from politics and culture. Such exclusion impoverishes civic life, ‘ thinning and trivializing the notion of a public culture. Can one really bracket Puritanism and Jeffersonianism? Everything about them, it seems, is different: one religious, the ‘other secular; one hierarchical, the other egalitarian; one town-oriented, the other rural; one reminis- cent of the medieval worldview, the other drawing upon the Enlightenment. More differ- ences could be enumerated, but I want to point out a crucial similarity: both reject the idea of FALL-1987- 429 DISSEN 7 W \v 22 W dfifflce. Neither can give positive cultural or political value to heterogeneity or conflict. Each in its own way is xenophobic, and that distances both of them from the conditions of modern life, especially as represented by the historic cosmopolitanism of New York and, increasingly, other cities in the United States. Few phrases reverberate more deeply through American history than John Winthrop’s celebra— tion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a Citty upon a Hill.” “We must,” Winthrop urged his party as they sighted Massachusetts Bay, “be knitt together in this worke as one man.” Never has the ideal of community been more forcefully stated in America. The Puri- tans envisioned a single moral community, one that acknowledged no distinction between private and public values. “Liberty,” Winthrop explained in his famous “Little Speech” in 1645, permits “that only which is good, just, honest”——something to be determined by the consensus of the community. Contrary to much American mythmaking, neither individualism nor democracy was nourished in the New England town. Its significance, Michael Zuckerman has argued, is rather that it nourished “a broadly diffused desire for consensual communalism as the operative premise of group life in America.” You had a place in a Puritan villager» town m ‘ ' those of only if your unit? _ ‘ Wm.w.. your nci hb anmincorporating mega: , an own leaders were quick to WWW...” ,, offer strahgers the “liberty to keep away from us ' ” ‘ ,vr'fffi The myth of consensus andéazneneSlSPWM sustained in the towns by a peculiar pattern of “democratic” practice. Votes were, of course, taken at town meetings, but the minutes of those meetings offer no evidence of split votes, thus making a single opinion the only recorded history. The ideal of concord and sameness undeflay religion as well. When Jonathan Edwards described. heaven for his congrega- tion, it was the New England town ideal made eternal. Heaven, he explained, is a place “where you shall be united in the same interest, and shall be of one mind and one heart and one soul forever.” 430 - DISSENT Although the social basis for such an experience of consensus had been undermined by the beginning of the nineteenth century, enough remained to sustain belief in it for many Americans. The ideal of a covenanted community persisted, as Page Smith has demonstrated, especially in the midwest.1 Even in the seventeenth century, this theory of America could accommodate inevitable difference, but only in a quite limited way. You cannot stay in our town, but you are free to establish your own town, with your own people and beliefs. This sort of pluralism, argued before the Supreme Court as recently as 1982 (in defense of school library censorship in the suburban Long Island district of Island Trees), is a pluralism of many supposedly consensual communities. So the dream of living surrounded by sameness, with all differences kept at a distance, persists. It is at the heart of much suburban development, but it is also to be found, as Frances FitzGerald has shown, in a diverse group of self-segregating communities, ranging from the “Castro” in San Francisco to Jerry Falwell’s Virginia Church.2 The dark side of the New England communal ideal is intolerance, as many a seventeenth— century New England Quaker accused of witchcraft learned. Otherness is a problem for such communities; difference becomes indistin— guishable from subversion.3 Thomas Jefferson, of course, was less worried about subversion. He even recom— mended frequent revolutions, always trusting the democratic practice of the living. It is this spirit that prompted Alexis de Tocqueville to refer to Jefferson as “the most powerful advocate democracy ever had.” But however much we are moved, and properly so, by Jefferson’s magnificent democratic profes- sions, we must also attend to the theory of society that underlay them. Jefferson could trust democracy because he assumed a societal consensus on values, and he opposed places like New York, calling them “cancers” on the body politic, in part because they would produce citizens whose values and interests would be marked not only by difference but even serious conflict. i LOOKING IT on CITY It is only lately, since Garry Wills publicized the Scottish influences on Jefferson, that the communitarian basis of his social thought has become evident. Jefferson believed men were naturally endowed with a “sense of right and wrong” because they were “destined for society.” Yet this “moral sense” was honed by actual social relations, making common sense, as Wills put it in‘Inventing-America, actually “communal sense.” The approbation of the community provided the basis for assessing virtue. For example, Jefferson granted blacks a moral sense, going on to explain that it was “their situation” that accounted for their evident “disposition to theft.” Jefferson’s admiration for Native American tribal cultures has been much remarked. But we . must grasp more fully the centrality of such communalism to his general theory of society. It was the basis for his confidence that in the agrarian society he envisioned Leviathan was not needed. Sociability and affection, not the artifice of government, would make the good society. All of this depended, however, upon shared values. That is why he encouraged territorial expansion, which would replicate nation of relatively equal yeoman farmers. On E America. He sought a common experience in a the negative side, his commitment to uniform— ity made Jefferson very hesitant about immigra— tion. Arguing against a policy of encouraging immigration, he explained that “it is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact to- “gether." For Jefferson. homogeneity and the v' duration of the republic seemed closely linked. Jefferson’s fear of the heterogeneity he associated with immigration provides a clue to his inability to contemplate a republic made up of former‘masters and former slaves. Historians have long tried to determine the sources of Jefferson’s peculiar position on slavery and freedom: he strongly criticized slavery but declined to become publicly identified with any antislavery movement. Even in his private dreams he always assumed that freed blacks would have to be deported. Some Jefferson scholars have focused on his racist language and assumptions, others upon economic inter— est, still others on his inability to transcend the worldview of his time, place, and class. Some have even suggested that slavery was fundamen— tal to his republicanism: freedom Jefnied ht. All such explarfifions contain part of the answer, but no one, to my knowledge, has noted the way in which his theory of l society as necessarily conflict-free made an ' interracial republic of former masters and former slaves impossible. Jefferson himself gave this kind of explana- V tion. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), he explained why freed slaves, if ever there was such a population, must be removed from society: Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injustices they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. Writing in 1820, Jefferson observed that “we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let‘him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” When faced with real conflicts of interest and values, the happy revolutionary retreated to the conservative standard of self-preservation. He even feared the divisiveness of public antislav— ery agitation, hoping, quite unrealistically, for a natural and conflictless moral progress that would somehow remove the blot of slavery. There was nowhere else for Jefferson to go. Certain elements of the J effersonian tradition may thus appear in a new light. We can now see why Jefferson wanted a happy and undifferentiated yeomanry and why he opposed the development of cities, with their complex social structures, diverse values, and conflict— ing interests. The great defender of democracy based upon sameness, Jefferson could find no way to accommodate difference. He found himself compelled to discourage immigration, to maintain slavery, and to oppose urbaniza— tion. Hardly a democratic theory for our time. .3 Both the Puritan and the Jeffersonian myths nourish a distrust of democracy, at least any democracy that proceeds from difference, whether of culture or interest. Both undermine FALL ' I987 - 431 LOOKING AT Illlll GI'I'Y mm a theory of democracy that proposes to use politics to determine the allocation of societal resources, since they cannot accommodate the conflicts implied by such politics. New York, operating on different cultural premises, histor- ically has proposed an alternative redistribu- tional politics. One cannot claim as much success for this approach as one might hope for, but New York has at least trusted in democracy amidst difference. And there are some successes, including nearly a half-century of progress until the fiscal crisis of 1975. When New York has been stopped or even turned back in such ambitions, it has been in the name of dominant American values, not in the name of its own values. As early as the 18305, Tocqueville suggested that the blacks and immigrants in cities (what he called the “rabble” of New York) be governed by an “armed force” under the “control of the majority of the nation” but “independent ofthe town population and able to repress its excesses.” In 1840, the conservative Philip Hone, a former mayor, recorded in his diary that universal suffrage might work in the American countryside, but not in New York, with its “heterogeneous mass of vile human- ity.” After the Civil War, E.L. Godkin, the founding editor of the Nation, insisted that economic and social relations were beyond the legitimate reach of politics. If the mass of urban workers could not be dissuaded from pursuing interest politics, he was prepared to disenfranchise them, thus removing them from ' municipal politics. Most recently, it has been Felix Rohatyn who has taken aim at New York’s best 432 - DISSENT traditions. In place of the tumult of a politics of difference, he proposes to rescue the city and even the nation from New York’s excessive democracy with an elite council of conciliation, much like the leaders of a Puritan church, charged with winning the wayward to the one true way. For Rohatyn the only way to make New York City acceptable to America is to depoliticize the city, substituting—in the Mu- nicipal Assistance Corporation and the Emer- gency Financial Control Board—a suprapoliti— cal authority, “publicly accountable but . . . run outside of politics.” Myths of sameness inevitably misrepresent the condition of life in a modern and urban society. Not only do they favor provincialism over cosmopolitanism, but they undermine our ability to bring economic life within the purview of a democratic politics. If there are fully shared values—either as a fact of nature, as Jefferson would have it, or as a result of very strong communal institutions, as Winthrop proposed—the market need not be an arena of conflict. It would be no more than a mere mechanism of exchange, essentially without implications for power relations. If, however, the assumption of consensus is false, then the market, unless politically controlled, becomes autonomous and self-legitimating—an all-too-faithful representation of modern power relations. Just this happened in the course of the nineteenth century, but for many Ameri- cans the myth of equality and of natural harmony masked the implications of this development, allowing the bulk of economic 4i .«nrsc—ssw ' decisions to be insulated from political control. Americans, more than any other people, came to accept the market as a law of nature, as a public philosophy. Although there have certainly been New York intellectuals of both radical and conserva— tive persuasion who have put their faith in the market on the basis of these mythical assump- tions, the broader political culture of the city—- , grounded upon an experience marked by the idea of difference—has energized attempts to bring economic decisions within the sphere of democratic politics. To the extent that modern America is more like New York than it is like Jefferson’s America, New York’s history may become prophetic. An America victimized by the illusion of the market as a public philosophy—which in fact facilitates corporate manipulation—may well find in its beleaguered metropolis an alternative myth. But can we identify a tradition of cultural and social thought in New York City that suggests an alternative to the dominant Ameri- can myths? A more vital politics? A richer notion of public culture? Does New York offer even a rudimentary alternative myth that deserves recovery? I think it does. The special character of New York was evident from the beginning. If religion inspired the Puritans and the dream of wealth drove the Virginians, the practicality of trade engaged the first settlers of New Amsterdam. If churches and regular church service came quickly to both Massachusetts and Virginia, it was the counting house, not the church, that repre— sented early New Amsterdam. There was little impulse to exclusion; trading partners were nun-r: a: mum 4 run: “BIKING IT nun CITY sought no matter what their background. Already in the 1640s eighteen languages were spoken in the area that is now New York City. This very different history became the material for an alternative vision of society, one that embraced difference, diversity, and conflict. By the middle of the eighteenth century William Livingston, who would later be a signer of the Constitution, was beginning to articulate in New York City a theory— remarkable for its time—of society and culture. Born in 1723, Livingston graduated from Yale College before beginning the study of law in New York City in 1742, the year before Jefferson’s birth. A decade later the trustees of the proposed King’s College (today’s Colum- bia) requested a charter of incorporation that privileged one religion at the expense of others (it prescribed an Anglican president in perpetu- ity). Livingston responded with an innovative vision of city culture that was cosmopolitan and pluralistic. At a time when all colonial intellectual life was organized within denominational institu- tions, Livingston proposed a radically different premise fOr culture. Writing in his own magazine, The Independent Reflector, Living- ston described a “free” college, one not tied to any private group. It would be governed by the people in their public character, that is, through public authorities. While the Government of the College is in the Hands of the People . . . its Design cannot be perverted. . . . Our College, therefore, if it be incorporated by Act of Assembly, instead of opening a Door to universal Bigotry and Establish- ment in Church, and Tyranny and Oppression in FALL ’ 1987 ' 433 W the State, will secure us in the Enjoyment of our respective Privileges, both Civil and religious. For as we are split into a great Variety of Opinions and Professions; had each Individual his Share in the Government of the Academy, the Jealousy of all Parties combating each other, would inevitably produce a perfect Freedom for each particular Party. This sense of city culture not only tolerated difference but depended upon it. Almost exactly one hundred years later Walt Whitman transformed these same social mate- rials into a work of art that at once reveled in and reconciled difference. But Whitman’s achievement was aesthetic, and its glue was emotion, not ideas. An ideological expression of New York found its best voice another half century later, in the person of Randolph Bourne. The symbolic leader of the first generation of American writers to call themselves intellectu~ als, Boume was in fact the prototype of the later New York intellectual, working at the intersection between politics and culture. Boume gave ideological expression to the cosmopoli— tan ideal that would distinguish New York from the provincial values of America. He supplied the context for the emergence, as David A. Hollinger has pointed out, of a left intelli- gentsia in New York between the wars.4 Seeking to liberate himself and his genera- tion from the Anglo-Saxon parochialism of the dominant culture, Bourne embraced the immi— grants who were transforming New York City. His essay, “Trans-National America,” pub- lished in the Atlantic in 1916 amid the intolerance of war, combined an acceptance of enduring particularism with a commitment to a common or public culture. He envisioned America in the image of New York City—a federation of cultures. Rejecting L'llC angio- Saxou tradition, he declared that American culture “lies in the future, it shall be “what the immigrant will have a hand in making it.” This was an audacious claim when made, and it could have been made only in New York. The editor who published the piece, Boston’s Ellery Sedgwick, stood for more traditional and homogeneous American ideals. He had agreed to publish the essay only because of his long-standing relationship with Bourne, a regular contributor, and because it was so well written. But he informed Bourne in his letter accepting the article: “I profoundly disagree with your paper.” In the incredulous voice of genteel Boston confronted by cosmo- politan New York, he admonished: “You speak as if the last immigrant should have as great effect upon the determination of our history as the first band of Englishmen.” Insisting that the United States had neither political nor literary lessons to learn from Eastern Europe, he bridled at Bourne’s equation of an old New Englander and a recent Czech as “equally characteristic of America."5 If we may now leap to the present—and toward a conclusion—it is precisely Bourne’s vision of New York and America that is endangered by both national and local cultural and political developments. No local cultural and political issue better illustrates these stakes than does the controversy over the future of Times Square. Is it to remain and be renewed as a New Yorkish public space, or is it to be transformed, with vastly over-scaled corporate towers designed by Phillip Johnson, into a mere episode in crass government-sponsored but private real estate development that could occur anywhere in America? A government that seemingly recognizes only one constituency is trying to give to that constituency a space that has historically represented all classes. What Johnson pro- poses, and what the political and financial elite sponsoring the scheme desire, is the transfor— mation of a public space historically marked by a multivoiced public culture into a monotonal space without public significance. To thus destroy Times Square is to destroy our most potent symbol of New York’s peculiarly cosmopolitan politics and culture. Times Square, like Union Square before it, has historically represented the complexity of the city’s culture. Here for all to see, for all to experience, the City has represented itself in all its fullness to itself and to the world. No other American city has an equivalent to Times Square. * 434 - DISSENT LOOKING AT nun CITY The question, however, is whether the diversity and public quality of this space must be destroyed in order to save it. Is inclusion, is difference, necessarily incompatible with safety? What is the source of the loss of confidence that is eroding our historic cosmopolitanism? From whence the idea that in New York it is necessary—or even possible—to remove com- pletely all sources of tension, or even struggles , for cultural and political expression in a public space? Of course, a sense of personal security is necessary for a space to function as a public place, but one must have the confidence to weigh, with some delicacy, the legitimate claims of security against the dynamic, even messy elements that make a space public and that impel the process of making public culture. To say that a space is in some sense contested terrain is not to deny its public character; it is to confirm it. Times Square has been a celebration of and a complicated recon- ciliation of difference, remaining so today, when it has lost much of its centrality and vitality. Current proposals to save the theaters and the lights at Times Square are not wrong, but they totally miss the point. They do not grasp the real historical and political stakes at 42nd Street and Broadway. This complex intersection represents an important tradition and is a contemporary symbol for an alternative to the dominant American presumption of sameness. Times Square, in short, symbolizes the differ- ence between New York and those Puritan and Jeffersonian myths that continue ‘ to find resonance across the Hudson. Perhaps New York‘s own myth, to say nothing of its practice, has never been fully elaborated and achieved, but New York and America would both lose were.it casually abandoned. If New York gives in, if New York abandons engage~ ment with difference, who will be left in America to stand against the rising intolerance toward difference, the new provincialism, to use the most gentle of possible epithets? A theory of society and culture such as I have described does not constitute a politics. But with- out it, without a symbolic representation of di- versity and difference, the much discussed but still unrealized progressive politics of a “rain- bow” coalition is an impossibility. Even if success were achieved in New York, it would still remain uncertain whether New York could vmake a culture and politics of difference respectable in America. Might New York’s myth of difference ever effectively compete with the dominant American myths of sameness? Or must we be always beleaguered and different? D Notes 1 Page Smith, As a City Upon a Hill (New York, 1966), esp. chap. 3. 2 Frances FitzGerald, Cities on a Hill (New York, 1986). Note the modification of Winthrop in her title. The change makes my point in the fewest possible words. 3 See the very powerful argument in Christine Leigh Heyrman, Commerce and, Culture (New York, 1984). “ David A. Hollinger, In the American Province (Bloom- ington, 1985), chap. 4. 5 Ellery Sedgwick to Randolph Bourne, Randolph S. Bourne Papers, Special Collections, Columbia University. FALL ' I987 - 435 ...
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5 Bender - LOOKING ll'l llllll CITY'l'homas Bender NEW YORK AS A CENTER OF “DIFFERENCE” How America’s Metropolis Counters American Myth hen

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